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It's hard to listen to this Sam Cooke song without conjuring up images of Barack Obama's victory in the 2008 presidential election. The election of America's first Black president most certainly shows that some change has come in American race relations. Obama even paraphrased Cooke during his victory speech before thousands of admirers in Chicago's Grant Park, declaring that "it's been a long time coming, but tonight [...] change has come to America" (source).
Sam Cooke's hopeful tone and vision for the Black American community certainly came to fruition with such a groundbreaking event as the election of the first Black president. It is of course crucial to recognize that such a milestone does not mean that race does not still matter in America; police brutality against minorities is on the rise, Black Lives Matter protests eerily echo the civil rights protests of the '60s, and the socioeconomic gap between whites and minorities still exits. But there's no denying that change has come since Sam Cooke got kicked out of a Louisiana Holiday Inn for the color of his skin in 1963, prompting him to write the song in the first place.
Sam Cooke most certainly stands as one of the most important voices in American popular music ever. He helped lay the framework for modern soul music, while also prevailing over a music industry that at the time was notorious for undervaluing its Black talent. Cooke was not only an incredibly talented musician and singer. He was also a savvy businessman, and understood the intricacies of the music industry in ways that many other artists didn't. In 1961, Cooke co-found his own record label—SAR Records—with his friend and colleague J.W. Alexander. This stood as a clear expression of Black pride and self-determination, as Cooke attempted to gain access to the earnings he deserved considering his success in American popular music. SAR Records was also important in fostering new musical talent. Cooke also managed to start his own publishing imprint and management firm. Many Black musicians of this period achieved incredible mainstream pop success, but were unable to gain access to the copyright licenses of their own songs. This had the effect of enriching producers and record companies while the musicians they employed received only modest earnings.
Cooke first achieved musical success when he became the lead singer of the gospel group the Soul Stirrers in 1950. Cooke was raised in a deeply religious household—his father was a Baptist minister—which would have first turned him on to gospel music. While a member of the Soul Stirrers, Cooke perfected the soft, sweet, vocal tone that would later make him famous in pop music. This switch to pop came in 1957 when Cooke left the Soul Stirrers and achieved remarkable success with the song, "You Send Me." The switch from gospel to pop music was a difficult decision for Cooke, but one that he considered necessary. And the crossover proved successful: Cooke had 29 Top 40 hits on the pop charts over the few years remaining in his short but fruitful career.
Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come" was released posthumously following his death in 1964...a stark reminder that the singer's life was marked not only by incredible success as a musician but also by incredible personal tragedy. The final tragedy came when he was shot down and killed in a Los Angeles motel under what still remain unfortunate and mysterious circumstances. Cooke was shot multiple times by the motel's manager after he threateningly entered her office while searching for a prostitute who had stolen his wallet and clothes after he had employed her services. There was almost universal disbelief in the Black community that these could be the circumstances of Cooke's death, especially since he had stood as such a pure and positive figure in their eyes.
Sad death notwithstanding, Cooke's legacy lived on. "A Change Is Gonna Come" was almost instantaneously adopted as an anthem by the Civil Rights Movement upon its release. Mark Naison, professor at Fordham University, discussed Cooke's legacy with NPR:
["A Change Is Gonna Come"] bridged the multiple and diverse feelings about America in the Black community—the portion that wants to forget about all the pain and suffering, the portion which honors the pain and suffering, and the portion which is determined to stick together to overcome this in the face of obstacles. There's something for everybody in this song who is working to overcome a tragic history. (Source)
Cooke tapped into the despair, the anger, and the frustration that many Black Americans felt in the context of persistent racism, while managing to maintain a hopeful tone. He realized that the tide was beginning to change by the early to mid-1960s in American race relations. There is almost a self-assured tone in this song. He didn't hope that a change was going to come, he knew it would.
There were a number of circumstances and events that inspired Cooke to write "A Change Is Gonna Come." The song came to him in a dream, in its entirety (source). When Cooke first played the song for Bobby Womack, Bobby said the song "sound[ed] like death [...] Well, it's not like death, but it sounds kind of spooky" (source).
This was quite different from the rest of the songs that he composed, which were carefully and meticulously crafted love ballads. It almost makes sense that this concept would come to him in a dream—the song clearly is inspired, and inspiring. Not only did "A Change Is Gonna Come" distinguish itself from other Sam Cooke songs in the way it was written, but the subject matter of the song is distinct from the rest of his musical catalogue. Cooke wrote songs primarily about love and heartache, but this track is a ballad clearly centered on the Black freedom struggle. While Cooke was initially concerned about the possibility of alienating some of his white fanbase with "A Change Is Gonna Come," he clearly viewed the song as the most important piece he had ever written.
Every Black musician alive during the time period had to confront the effects of Jim Crow and racism each and every day. While touring, Black musicians like Cooke played for mixed audiences and felt the sting of Jim Crow firsthand. At great personal risk, Cooke refused to play Memphis' Ellis Auditorium in 1961 before a segregated audience. After Cooke recorded "A Change Is Gonna Come," he donated the song to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) for use in an album that the famous civil rights organization distributed in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1964.
Though "A Change Is Gonna Come" still resonates to this day, as evidenced by Obama's victory speech, it's clearly a song of its time and circumstances. While touring in North Carolina in 1963, Cooke met with and spoke to students involved in the sit-in movement in the South. Cooke felt the sting of American apartheid firsthand in Shreveport, Louisiana, when he was turned away from a hotel because he was Black. Unwilling to back down from the hotel management, Cooke was eventually arrested during the incident.
Finally, Sam Cooke was inspired to write "A Change Is Gonna Come" upon hearing Bob Dylan's classic song of protest, "Blowin' in the Wind." Dylan sang, "How many years can some people exist before they're allowed to be free? How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn't see?" These are some pretty loaded questions and Sam Cooke felt that a Black musician should turn those questions, step up, and write a song that captured the complex feelings and emotions that Black Americans felt at the height of the civil rights struggle. It was a personal challenge for the musician.
"A Change Is Gonna Come" certainly proved that Cooke was up to the challenge. The song captures the aspirations and frustrations of African Americans during this period. There are clear illusions to the events that occurred at the hotel in Shreveport—"somebody keep telling me 'don't hang around"—and there's the line that captures the pain that he felt following his son Vincent's death in a drowning accident in June 1963: "It's been too hard living, but I'm afraid to die, cause I don't know what's up there beyond the sky." The agony he felt following his son's death clearly forced Cooke to question his religious faith.
But most importantly, despite all the anguish and despair, Sam Cooke remained optimistic. He knew that the African American community could not create the political, social, and economic changes that they desired if they became too disheartened. The last stanza captures this hopeful attitude. Cooke sings, "There been times that I thought I couldn't last for long, but now I think I'm able to carry on. It's been a long, a long time coming, but I know a change gonna come."